Jon Ronson has made a career from taking important topics, and finding the ridiculous element within them. It works pretty well for getting us to pay attention to what he has to say — I certainly look forward to reading his books, in a way I wouldn’t for a drier treatment of the same topic.
In the past he’s looked at extremists, psycopaths and conspiracy heorists. Now he’s looking at online shamings — at how twitter users form into global mobs, piling to humiliate anybody who transgresses the social order.
We are living through “a great renaissance of public shaming“, Ronson argues. We have formed ourselves into a new global public, and there is nothing we like more than humiliating people:
After a while it wasn’t just transgressions we were keenly watchful for. It was misspeakings. Fury at the terribleness of other people had started to consume us a lot. And the rage that swirled around seemed increasingly in disproportion to whatever stupid thing some celebrity had said. It felt different to satire or journalism or criticism. It felt like punishment. In fact it felt weird and empty when there wasn’t anyone to be furious about. The days between shamings felt like days picking fingernails, treading water.
Ronson, with his uncanny ability to persuade anybody to talk to him, manages to arrange interviews with many victims of online shaming. There are Lindsey Stone and Justine Sacco, who achieved online ignominy by tweeting off-colour jokes about veterans and AIDS victims. Or Jonah Lehrer and Mike Daisey, who falsified quotations for print and radio respectively. Or Max Mosley, whose sin was to enjoy S&M while being the son of nazi sympathisers.
Ronson’s light touch doesn’t stop this being an entirely damning attack on a brutal new culture. He puts it in the historical context of justice systems moving away from shaming as being too brutal, even in comparison with torture or capital punishment. “ignominy [being] universally acknowledged to be a worse punishment than death“, wrote one of the founding fathers, “it would seem strange that ignominy should ever have been adopted as a milder punishment”
If public punishments used to contain some nod towards justice, the new mob is startling in its obliviousness. When Ronson talks to the perpetrators of public shaming, they seem baffled by the idea that their targets could be seriously hurt by it. They assume that they are ‘punching up’ against victims powerful enough to shrug it off.
The victims, though, seem near-uniformly broken. Months after whatever outbreak of online hatred brought them down, their lives are still shaped by it. Unemployed, plagued by depression and self-loathing, they are ceaselessly reminded of whatever minor infraction they committed. None of Ronsons interviewees have killed themselves, but you feel that’s mostly a matter of luck.
Ronson points out that this shaming is inherently a conservative force. It didn’t seem that way at first, because the early adopters tended to be liberal. As the attacked homophobes and jumped on the cruelty of the Daily Mail, it was possible to believe that the twitter mob would be a force for good.
But now that everybody uses social media, online shaming will simply replicate the views of society. Worse, it will emphasise the conservative tendencies, because the nature of the shaming process is to punish people who are different:
We see ourselves as nonconformist, but I think all of this is creating a more conformist, conservative age.
‘Look!’ we’re saying. ‘WE’RE normal! THIS is the average!’
We are defining the boundaries of normality by tearing apart the people outside of it.